If You’re Sentenced to Life as a Juvenile, What Does It Take to Get Parole?

The law, lawyers, and the court.
June 11 2014 12:16 PM

“Where Do You Think That Rage Came From?”

To get parole, people sentenced to life as juveniles must reckon with their pasts.

Joseph Donovan.
Joseph Donovan sits before the Massachusetts Parole Board during a hearing on May 29, 2014. Donovan's case is one of the first to be re-examined after a 2012 Supreme Court ruling on sentencing juveniles.

Courtesy of the Joe Donovan Project

Last week, the Massachusetts Parole Board announced that Frederick Christian might go home. He would be one of the first people to be released based on the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling, in Miller v. Alabama, finding mandatory life sentences for juveniles unconstitutional.

Christian was 17 when he was involved in a drug robbery that ended with the shooting deaths of two men. Now he is 37. In prison, he got his GED, enrolled in violence prevention programs, and converted to Islam. The five-times-a-day prayers, he said, “taught me discipline.” He has maintained a steady job cleaning the prison, gone regularly to Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and helped to grow vegetables for the homeless.

Across the country, some 2,500 people are serving life without parole sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles. Some have already served 30 years or more. Yet it’s likely few of them will get out. Before he can be paroled, Christian still has to complete a behavior modification program and live for a year in a minimum security prison. And his hearing is one of only a handful like it around the country since Miller. The Supreme Court said that the young people’s capacity to mature and change entitle them to a second chance. But lower courts, legislatures, and parole boards have more incentive to maintain the status quo than to show mercy—to follow the letter of Miller but not its spirit.

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That’s because letting more prisoners like Christian go free requires a return to an idea that the country largely abandoned a generation ago: that criminals can be rehabilitated, and there is a limit to just retribution. As costs rise for the growing prison population, legislators from every corner of the political map are now calling for a softening of sentencing laws. But legislation about the future is one thing. Giving a second chance to people who have already been sentenced for doing terrible things is another.

Christian was convicted in 1998 of two counts of first-degree murder. At the time of his crime, he was a drug dealer. He and two friends planned to rob three other dealers. But one of his friends shot the other men, killing two and wounding the third. Christian says (and the evidence suggests) he had no idea his friend meant to shoot the dealers. He didn’t hurt anyone himself. Still, he was convicted under the felony murder rule, which says all participants in a crime that ends in someone’s death can be treated as equally culpable. His sentence was mandatory: life without parole.

In Miller, the Supreme Court said sentencing judges must have discretion to consider mercy for juveniles facing life sentences. Before imposing life without parole, a judge must consider factors that set teenage criminals apart from their adult counterparts: immaturity, susceptibility to peer pressure, limited control over their home environments, and difficulty evaluating risks or appreciating consequences.

But the court left open the question of what to do with the juvenile lifers like Christian, now adults, who were sentenced before Miller. Several states, including Louisiana, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania, which collectively house almost half of the nation’s juvenile lifers, have said Miller is not retroactive: It only applies to new cases.

Even in states in which courts are reviewing old cases in light of Miller, they’re often leaving the defendants in prison for life. This month in Iowa, a judge heard from 33-year-old Romeo Hardin, who was 15 when he shot 21-year-old Augustus Nance in a gang initiation rite. After considering what he called Hardin’s “pathetic” childhood, filled with violence and neglect, the judge again sentenced him to life without parole. The same judge resentenced another juvenile lifer, Christine Lockheart—who was convicted of first-degree murder after waiting in the car while her boyfriend robbed and stabbed a neighbor—to life with the possibility of parole. In Michigan, a judge recently resentenced one person sentenced to life without parole, for a murder and carjacking at 16, to the same penalty. He resentenced another man, who was 14 when he shot and robbed an elderly woman, to 40 to 60 years. “Some people—let me emphasize, some people—need a second chance,” the judge said.

In other states, including Massachusetts, these sentencing determinations are in the hands of parole boards. Often appointed by governors, board members can be exquisitely sensitive to reflecting badly on their bosses. The ghost of Willie Horton may forever haunt the Massachusetts board. More recently, the board got into trouble for granting parole to lifer Dominic Cinelli, who then shot and killed a police officer in a botched armed robbery in 2010. Gov. Deval Patrick forced five of the six sitting parole board members to resign the following year. Parole rates dropped precipitously after that.

In deciding whether to give an inmate like Christian a second chance, many parole boards consider the severity of his original crime, and the reasons for it, at least as heavily as whether, and how much, he has changed in the decades since. “The parole board always tries to figure out what motivated someone to commit a crime—why did they do it?” says Patricia Garin, a Boston criminal defense attorney who specializes in parole.

Before Christian’s hearing, the board heard from Joseph Donovan, whose case has garnered media attention as an example of harsh sentencing: At 17, he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for throwing an ill-fated punch. Last month, he shuffled into his hearing, balding and thick around the middle at 38. “I was such a stupid kid,” he told the parole board of his teenage self.

As a lanky 17-year-old with a dark-haired pompadour, Donovan was out on a Friday night, looking for beer with some kids from his Cambridge, Massachusetts, neighborhood, when two exchange students brushed past him on the sidewalk. Donovan’s bluster and posturing—don’t you say excuse me?—quickly escalated when Donovan threw a punch so forceful that it broke his hand and knocked Yngve Raustein to the ground. While Donovan nursed his injured hand, his 15-year-old friend Shon McHugh pulled out a knife and, unprovoked, stabbed 21-year-old Raustein to death. Tried as a juvenile, McHugh served 10 years of a 20-year sentence. A third friend they were with, Alfredo Velez, testified against Donovan in exchange for a reduced sentence; he too served 10 years.  

But Donovan was tried as an adult and convicted of first-degree murder under the felony murder rule. At Donovan’s hearing, the parole board asked him the obvious questions about his violent behavior. “Where does this punch come from?” asked one member. “Where do you think that rage came from the night that you punched the victim so hard that you broke your own hand?” asked another.  

“I wanted to project a tough guy image—to be the man,” Donovan told the board. “It’s a childish, stupid thing, to even have that thought.”

In the last 15 years, Donovan has dedicated himself to reading and artwork, and he has been involved in no violent incidents in prison. But the early part of his sentence was marked by fights and assaults resulting in a cumulative seven years in solitary confinement. At his hearing, he also had to explain this part of his record. “When I was first sent to [prison], I was scared and confused. I made a series of poor decisions. I always wound up in the hole,” he said. There in solitary confinement, “I realized I let other people dictate my actions. I let events spin out of control. I had to step up and take responsibility for my actions. Because, at the end of the day, they’re the only thing I can control in this life.”

Joe Donovan told the board precisely the kind of story that Miller is meant to account for: He said he went into prison an impulsive, self-centered kid and grew up to be a reflective, empathetic man. An adult. “The fact is, that night, now, who I was back then, is so far removed from who I am today,” Donovan said. “I can’t believe I ever did that.” The parole board has yet to make a decision about his case. He’s waiting to find out if he’ll ever escape his 17-year-old self.

Beth Schwartzapfel is a freelance journalist who covers the criminal justice system. Her work has appeared in Mother Jones, the American Prospect, and the Boston Review. Follow her on Twitter.

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